Saturday, 5 May 2012

Boxcar Bertha

Martin Scorsese’s second picture and the second in my Scorsese in Sequence feature is Boxcar Bertha. Bertha Thompson (Barbara Hershey) is a young woman whose father dies in an aircraft accident. With no money and no home she travels around the Depression hit South aboard railway boxcars. Along the way she meets ‘Big’ Bill Shelly (David Carradine), a Union Man and suspected Communist. The two of them begin a relationship and along with Yankee, Rake Brown (Barry Primus) and ‘negro’, Von Morton (Bernie Casey) take to robbing trains as a means of surviving.

This is unlike most other Scorsese films. It is the only one to feature a woman in the central role and one of only a handful set outside of the East Coast. As a result it feels amongst the least Scorsese-esque of his films. The direction is fairly straightforward. There are no trademark long tracking shots, very little popular music and cutting is slow and traditional. One area in which Scorsese does stick to type is with Bertha’s moral ambiguity. At the beginning she is a sweet young girl but towards the end she is a woman who will do anything it takes to survive and appears to enjoy the wilder side of life. The film also contains Scorsese’s trademark violence, especially in an unexpectedly brutal final scene.

The story isn’t very interesting, or at least it didn’t interest me. Although Bertha was the central character, I never felt that we really got to know her. Barbara Hershey’s performance though was excellent. She had this mischievous glint in her eye and a cheeky smile. She is the sort of character that you could imagine getting away with anything. David Carradine (Hershey’s real life partner at the time) is also good and the relationship between the two feels realistic, helped I’m sure by their off screen romance. One of my main problems with the film was that it felt like I was watching people from the 1970s doing impressions of people from the 30s. The period detail was there but it wasn’t well used. Hershey for instance looked like she’d just arrived from Woodstock. Another problem was that towards the end of the film only Carradine’s character appeared to have aged and this made me confused as to how much time had lapsed.

Where the film is strong is in its depiction of harsh conditions during the depression. It shows this not only in the traditional sense of men out of work but also from the perspective of woman and African Americans. It is shocking to hear the black character repeatedly mentioned as an afterthought by the authorities, as though he was of no importance while the things that Bertha must do to live once her robbing days are over are typical of the era. There are small details such a dirt under the character’s nails which helps to create the down and out look.  

Produced by Roger Corman, the film was obviously intended for the exploitation market. While it does not fit into the B-Movie genre quite as easily as the likes of The Wasp Woman and Attack of the Crab Monsters, it was produced for just $600,000, features plenty of unnecessary nudity and feels cheap and rushed. This is a film in which Scorsese is still very much finding his feet. If I’m honest it feels like a step back from Who's That Knocking at My Door and Scorsese went back to that formula for his next film Mean Streets, but this film showed that Scorsese was capable of making a film out of his comfort zone, quickly and on a small budget. That being said, I’d only recommend it to Scorsese and Corman completists.   


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